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Online program aids learning for Jewish special-needs kids

by Ryan E. Smith

March 8, 2012 | 1:04 pm

In a lesson from Online Jewish Academy, students use highlighting to visualize rhyme and alliteration, and recognize that the poem “The Raven” uses the same linguistic techniques as the Tower of Babel text.

In a lesson from Online Jewish Academy, students use highlighting to visualize rhyme and alliteration, and recognize that the poem “The Raven” uses the same linguistic techniques as the Tower of Babel text.

Daniel Ozer-Ross studies hard. He does his homework. And it’s not enough.

A freshman at New Community Jewish High School, the 14-year-old has, since preschool, battled visual-processing challenges that have impaired his short-term memory and made it difficult to remember what he sees.

Even his high school’s accommodations — permission to use a note-taker and computer in class and extended time to take tests — haven’t been enough to compensate.

“The school’s been amazingly supportive, but with the current curriculum, he’s really been struggling academically,” said the teen’s mother, Laura Ozer of Calabasas.

That could be about to change. This coming fall, Ozer-Ross will be part of the Online Jewish Academy (OJA), a program that is partnering with a handful of area Jewish day schools to help them better meet the challenge of teaching students with special needs.

“He could really benefit from a more modified curriculum,” his mother said. “By going online, he can go at his own pace. He can repeat things that he needs to repeat.”

The academy, which is funded over three years by a $240,000 Cutting Edge Grant from the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles, will create online courses that are designed around the needs of students, while allowing participants to remain part of Jewish day schools, according to Hyim Brandes, OJA’s co-founder and executive director.

OJA will work with teachers and students at New Community Jewish High School (NCJHS), Shalhevet School and Yeshiva University High Schools of Los Angeles (YULA).

The goal is to fill a void that exists in too many private schools where resources for children with learning differences are inadequate, said Sari Brandes, OJA’s co-founder and director of student services and Hyim’s sister.

“Up until now, [private schools] have been underserving or not serving this population,” she said. “The Jewish community is based on education and supporting our students and being inclusive. For us to not include a student just because they can’t read at grade level would be a shandah [shame].”

Sari’s passion for the subject comes from personal experience. Diagnosed with dyslexia growing up, she was told by a high school guidance counselor that she shouldn’t bother applying for college. She ended up attending community college, where she had to be part of a special program.

“I was furious,” she said. “I wanted to be like everybody else. All these kids just want an opportunity to be like everybody else.”

What she realized eventually is that everyone learns differently. Once a student discovers how he or she learns best, anything is possible. In Sari’s case, she discovered that her preferred means of learning is auditory rather than visual. The Sherman Oaks woman went on to earn a bachelor’s degree from the University of California, Berkeley, and a master’s degree from Harvard. Now the 37-year-old does educational consulting, coaching and educational therapy.

OJA, which is fiscally sponsored by BJE — Builders of Jewish Education, will target children with mild to moderate learning disabilities, including dyslexia, auditory and visual processing disorders, attention deficit hyperactivity disorder, Asperger’s syndrome and high-functioning autism. Initially, the academy will offer help in Judaic and general studies to about 12 students — mostly ninth-graders — and expand to higher grade levels in future years.

The program is being designed to reach the students where they are rather than forcing them to adapt to a specific style of teaching, according to Hyim, a resident of West Hills. To that end, teachers are modifying and remediating existing courses to be used in the initiative; lectures are being videotaped and adapted for online use and multiple learning styles.

“It’s a tool that allows the curricula to be tailored to each student,” said Hyim, who has worked for a number of schools as a technology consultant. “If all a student needs to be successful is to have the [material] presented in a different font or to have something spoken to them or any of these small accommodations, it’s really possible now. The digital technology exists.”

OJA students will be jointly enrolled in one of the participating day schools and take part in some of the same classes and activities as everyone else there. Only in those areas that are necessary will they will take courses online, for which there is no additional cost. Hyim said the program also calls for the students to have access to teacher mentors, tutors and weekly meetings with an educational or occupational therapist.

“This expands our options and makes our overall ability to provide educational services to these children even better,” said Josh Horwatt, education support coordinator at Shalhevet. “Having a class that can move at their own pace, that is more independent, where they are free from distraction could be very advantageous for the right students.”

That’s important for college preparatory schools like Shalhevet, where instructors are expected to teach at a level that readies students for college and where course modification for any reason has traditionally been a sticky issue.

Up until now, Ellen Howard, principal of NCJHS, said the school has been able to make minor accommodations to help students with learning differences, and it’s been upfront about what it can and cannot offer. What’s important about OJA, she said, is that it will allow more students with special needs to have a Jewish education.

“There are some very good special needs independent schools, but they don’t provide a Jewish education,” she said. “I think it’s wonderful that the Jewish community is embracing a chance to do this.”

Of course, OJA isn’t the answer for all students with special needs. As Phil Liff-Grieff, BJE’s associate director, said: “It’s one model. Is it the answer to all of the issues for all of the kids? No. We need as many different models as there are different diagnoses.”

But it’s an important start.

“OJA’s groundbreaking and creative program could influence the way Jewish education is provided for special-needs students,” said Amelia Xann, vice president of the Jewish Community Foundation of Los Angeles. “OJA has the potential to make a significant difference with this population. We look forward to watching this program as it launches over the next three years.”

While Rabbi Abraham Lieberman, head of school at YULA Girls High School, acknowledged past challenges in this area for day schools in California — due, he said, to a lack of resources from the state — he hopes the new academy can help change that.

“I hope it falls in place,” he said. “The idea is a great idea.”

Hyim’s wish is even bigger. He’d like to see these methods eventually find a wider audience.

“My hope,” he said, “is that the teachers that are involved in the program will be applying those sorts of techniques with the regular classrooms as well.”

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